"All-American Girl" may have one of the safest-sounding titles of the new season. And, on the surface, the premise of the ABC sitcom couldn't be more innocuous:
Spirited, boy-crazy college student in her 20s constantly clashes with her strong-willed, conservative mother and other members of her traditional middle-class family. Works part time at a cosmetic counter and likes to hang out with her girlfriends at the college cafe.
Yet people keep telling the show's producers and writers that they're stepping into a minefield--because the family at the center of the show is Korean American. The series marks the first time that Asian Americans have played all the principal roles in a network series.
"All-American Girl" stars stand-up comic Margaret Cho, and much of the show's material is autobiographical. She plays Margaret Kim, who often butts heads with her mother (Jodi Long), who wants her daughter to marry a nice Korean boy, preferably with a very good job. Also in the family is her father (Clyde Kusatsu), who understands Margaret better than her mother does; her brother (B.D. Wong), a resident doctor at the college; and a hip, outspoken grandmother (Amy Hill).
The promise of a prominent Asian American cast has had several local groups concerned that "All-American Girl" might feature racial stereotypes that have long plagued the portrayal of blacks and other minorities on television. For weeks prior to the broadcast of tonight's premiere, Asian American groups have been monitoring the series' progress--scrutinizing the pilot, reading scripts and attending tapings.
So far, many members of the groups have praised the show, saying that the concept of "All-American Girl" is long overdue for a mainstream audience, and that the series will help shatter stereotypes about Asians, particularly Korean Americans.
"We're very optimistic about what we've seen, and feel it's very significant that this is being tried," said Guy Aoki, head of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans. The organization has denounced images of Asian Americans in the films "Rising Sun" and "Falling Down."
Aoki added, "If there is one Asian group that needed a show like this to take care of the misunderstandings people have about them, it's Korean American. We see a family, and we don't see rude grocers who shoot people randomly. I don't think this show will solve all the problems, but given a chance to grow, it will sure help."
To demonstrate their appreciation for the series, the organization is honoring the show's creator, Gary Jacobs, with its Media Achievement Award.
Sumi Haru, president of the Assn. of Asian Pacific Artists, said: "I'm glad television is finally doing something with Asian Americans, and the buzz is good. This is healthy stuff, to show the generational and cultural differences that all of us go through. It's very true to life and should generate a lot of stories."
Others have reservations about the series. Jerry Yu, executive director of the Korean American Coalition, said some members of his community advocacy group were bothered by the pilot.
"We saw the pilot, and a lot of people didn't think it was funny," Yu said. "It showed the older people in the family not speaking English very well. There was a funny confusion of various Asian cultures. Much of the stuff from the show was not from the Korean culture."
He agreed that concerns about the show's images may have been increased by the Los Angeles riots and other media portrayals of Asian Americans.
"If this show had come on five years ago, there would not be all this sensitivity surrounding it," Yu said. "But in the last two or three years, there have been so many examples of negative stereotypes. Even though it's not the mission of this show to be anything more than entertaining, I hope they do their best not to exploit the kind of sentiment that may exist out there."
Jacobs, the show's creator, said he is aware of the scrutiny by local Asian groups.
"I feel this tremendous responsibility, especially in these days of political correctness when it's so easy to run afoul of people's expectations," said Jacobs. "And comedy is a huge target for people who have an ax to grind."
Jacobs said that portions of the pilot have been re-shot to make Cho's character a college student (she had been working full time before), and Wong's character, who was married, is now single and living at home. The family's accents and stilted speaking patterns in the pilot will be modified in subsequent episodes, he added.
A Korean consultant is on the set and the show has two Asian American writers.
One of those writers, Elizabeth Wong, said, "This is not a show that deals with politics. It's an 8:30 show that deals with family dynamics. That's what we're interested in. But I very much feel a lot of pressure. This is a show I really care about. It reflects a lot of who I am, and who Margaret is. But if we focus on telling good stories, that's the most important thing."
* "All-American Girl" premieres at 9:30 tonight and thereafter will be seen Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. on ABC (Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42). The first episode was not available for review.